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USAID Official Describes Opportunities for Women’s Empowerment

Susan Markham, Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment of USAID , is giving an exclusive interview to VOA at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh on her visit to Cambodia on May 7th 2015. (Nov Povleakhena/VOA Khmer)
Susan Markham, Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment of USAID , is giving an exclusive interview to VOA at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh on her visit to Cambodia on May 7th 2015. (Nov Povleakhena/VOA Khmer)

Editor’s note: Susan Markham is USAID’s senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment. She recently visited Cambodia to meet with rights workers and development groups, as well as USAID staff. She also met with officials at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. She spoke to VOA Khmer at the US Embassy.

What concerns have NGOs raised with you regarding gender?

There are several issues. One is the prevalence of violence here. Gender-based violence is a way of life in every country where we work and live, but specifically here within homes, domestic violence with regards to women and children seems to be something that comes up again and again.

Another issue is the migration issue with men, and sometimes women and children moving within the country and across the border, which really have a crippling effect across economic growth, education and nutrition. I mean a whole range of issues. Just that movement of part of the family, or the whole family moving, can have such an impact on people’s lives, especially children’s lives.

What advice would you give to NGOs working on this issue, or to the government itself?

I’m certainly not in a position to give advice to these civil society organizations, who have been working for a very long time, but it’s a complex issue. I mean the issue of extreme poverty can’t be fixed alone through economic growth, when the education levels aren’t there or people don’t feel safe in their own homes.

It’s really a whole wrap of factors that come together. You need good governance, from the parliamentary level all the way down to the local level. You need to have people being educated and feel that education is actually important for jobs. So it is a wide range of factors that need to be addressed. I think there’ve been some movement, but we are trying to find way to galvanize all the work that we’re doing at USAID to really move them all down the field.

Where does education play into all this?

We’ve seen in a lot of countries: When you can educate boys and girls, it really has a huge effect on their income, potential, and on their own health choices that they make. And obviously the income that they eventually have. But just as importantly, when you educate a man or a woman, that has a huge impact on their children, and their children are more likely to be educated and healthier.

Would a better government policy reduce domestic violence?

Well, it takes the government. It also takes a strong civil society organization to provide services, to provide counseling and shelters. Sometimes the government can play a good role with policy and law, but they can’t act alone. You need to change attitude, and you need to change services, both to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.

How do you think they can change such attitudes?

There have been many programs. Sometimes just talking about it openly, talking about the idea that it is not right that you can hit your spouse, or wife, just because of a cooked meal that was burnt, or she did do what she wanted. So having those open conversation about it sometimes is the first step. We’ve also seen in other countries campaigns, public awareness campaigns about the impact of domestic violence, not to just that instant, but more long term.

In a developing country like Cambodia, how can the private sector play a role?

I think the private sector has to acknowledge the fact that there is a cost to domestic violence, whether people are not going to work or because they are injured or they are taking time off work, or the cost to health sectors who have to treat people who have been victims of domestic violence or other gender-based violence.

In a lot of countries, we’ve done work to actually show the private sector how it impacts them because that gets to the bottom line, how much it affects them. So you have to work with the private sector, but I also think more broadly private companies care about the health of the nation in which they work. If we can reach out to them in a way that could speak to them, they can play a very powerful role.

Are there enough Cambodian women on the political stage, or working for the government?

I think that in most countries around the world, including Cambodia, we would like to increase the number of women involved in elected politics, or working in political administration at the local level. Until women are 50 percent representation, I think we still have a long way to go. Women bring a different perspective to conversations that people are having about what policy should be addressed or what the policies are. So it’s important to have them sitting at those making decision tables.

I personally come from a strong background in democracy, politics and governance, so I strongly urge an increase in women in political participation.

Cambodia has experienced a lot of violence over the few years, including the killing of garment workers. Do you think if there were more women in politics—let’s say half in high positions of government—that these kinds of incidents would decrease?

When I think about any issue, I think about three different levels at the same time. One, you work at the individual level. You work with the individual women to build their skills and knowledge, so they know what their rights are, they know that what the laws are, so that if they are victims of violence [they know] who they can go to. But you also have to work at the constitutional level, so that you have to make sure politics is working. You have to make sure that the justice sector, the legal process, all of these are working.

And, as I said before, you have to work at the attitude level. So you have to work at all of these. It’s not just getting more women into politics, but it’s also making effective law and policies. It’s also making sure women know their rights, and as I said, changing cultural attitudes, as it’s not right, whether in the work force or at home, to use violence to solve a problem.

Do you think that if women held high positions in government, that violence would decrease?

I don’t know if that is easy as a link. I do have to say it makes a difference when women are in office. The attitude has about women in leadership. We’ve seen studies all over the world, when there are more women in public service, people change [attitudes] about it, [saying], “Oh maybe women are qualified to do it well.” I think the more important impact is that in those areas where women are in leadership, more girls were in schools.

What can Cambodia do to have more women in higher political positions?

A lot of this starts with the political party. Political parities have to have more women on their candidates list, and they have to work, not all of the sudden just put them on the list, but work with women for a long time within their political party structure to train them, and within an organization, whether it’s a civil society organization or political party. No one starts out as a leader. You get training. You have an opportunity to show your leadership, and then that grows, and you’re promoted up.

I think in politics we need to give women the opportunity, starting at a young level, to both gain the skill and the experience to continue to move up.

When you have more women running for office, and you’re encouraging voters to engage and think about women as leaders, oftentimes political parties all across the political spectrum will say that they want more women in office. But when it comes down to how they spend the money, they are not really promoting woman candidates.

And then we also need to make sure that the public is aware. In a lot of places, we’ve also seen that when the government is more diverse and there are more women in office, the population actually feels more positive about the government, because they do feel like it represents them. So we can make this case and have more women in the office. It’s a long-term process.

Should Cambodia have a law mandating a specific number of women in the National Assembly or executive body or other government entity?

I would say that quota or temporary special method laws have worked in a lot of countries, but, as I said before, you really need people here to want that law. You need to have an organization of women and men who want to support it. You have to have political parties who’re willing to implement that law. And you have to make sure that the women elected are allowed to serve important positions, not just a position that pushes them to the side.